After premiering last week at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” a high-concept magician movie starring Steve Carell and Jim Carrey, is now appearing (as if by magic!) nationwide. The story follows an aged performer (Carell) who ditches his partner (Steve Buscemi) and attempts to recapture his mojo while fending off the competition in the form of a swarthy “street magician” (Carrey) whose shtick is more “Jackass” than “The Prestige.”
But does the considerable comedic weight of Carrel, Buscemi, and Carrey (not to mention a stellar supporting cast that includes James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, and Olivia Wilde) equal an amazing feat of cinematic magic, or is it more or less like seeing the fake finger a magician stuffs the handkerchief into?
1. This Is Steve Carell’s “Anchorman”
Carell’s Burt Wonderstone starts off as a latchkey kid enchanted by the transformative power of magic, but he grows up into a pompous jerk and proud owner of “the largest bed in Vegas.” You can tell that it’s a very conscious attempt at creating a kind of Ron Burgundy-type character, a lovable rascal who does and says all the wrong things, but you can’t help but feel for him anyway. (Remember, Carell witnessed that movie firsthand, playing dimwitted weatherman Brick in “Anchorman” and its forthcoming sequel.) For the most part it works, although internal logic nags constantly. Still, it’s fun to watch Carell be a little jerky.
2. Magicians Aren’t Exactly the Best Target of Satire in 2013
One of the more confusing things about “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is why anyone is targeting magicians as the source of barbed satire in 2013. Even the Carrey character, who is more along the lines of Criss Angel or David Blaine, seems at least a decade out of date. Magic isn’t in the public consciousness enough to really celebrate or level attacks at it. It is, as the film suggests, a weird subculture rarely encountered and only truly seen in Las Vegas. (What levitates in Vegas, stays in Vegas.)
3. Carell and Buscemi Are Hilarious Together
The best moments of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” are at the beginning, when Buscemi and Carell are doing their tired routine in front of an adoring Vegas audience. You can tell that they’ve been doing it for decades, and while it’s now become little more than reflex memory, it’s still utterly hilarious. The two performers compliment each other wildly and it is an absolute blast to watch them together. Also, their costumes and wigs are totally amazing — the right amount of Vegas cheese, mixed with copious amounts of razzle dazzle.
4. Keep Your Expectations in Check
While the amount of comedic powerhouses under one roof is truly promising, the actual results are somewhat more underwhelming. Large stretches of the movie, while lively, are almost completely free of laughs, and sometimes the pacing feels a bit off. So if you like these comedians, hang in there, but just know that the laughs aren’t going to be fast and furious. In a way, this is a throwback to calmer, less frantic comedies of old (although there are plenty of sex jokes for those that need or desire that sort of thing).
5. Jim Carrey Does a Pretty Spot-On Criss Angel
Carrey plays a Criss Angel-type street magician who is more interested in sleeping on hot pokers than pulling rabbits out of hats. Carrey, always the physical comedian, transforms himself — he’s got stringy blond hair, eyeliner, and outlandish outfits. Had the performance been better modulated (and this could be the script and direction’s fault as much as the actor’s), it would have been a feat. As it stands, it’s a minor trick, more slight of hand than actual substance.
6. Olivia Wilde Is Very Adorable
Not that you’ve forgotten, but in case you have, Olivia Wilde is really attractive and a wonderful actress. Unfortunately, in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” she’s given tragically little to do and (even worse) shoved into an unconvincing romantic subplot with Carell made all the creepier by their 20-year age difference. (Keep in mind she’s the only female character in the entire movie, too, and she basically is relegated to the periphery for much of the running time.)
7. The Soundtrack Seems to Have Been Assembled in the Mid-’90s
When was the last time you heard one-hit wonder Us3’s bouncy “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”? Well, you’re about to hear it in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.” For some reason, the soundtrack to the film seems to have been assembled around 1993, which, granted was a pretty good year (“Jurassic Park” anyone?) but maybe not the best when it comes to sounds easily applicable to a movie set in 2013. It’s like listening to some college radio station beamed in from the past.
8. James Gandolfini Doesn’t Play A Mobster
Sorry, “Sopranos” fans, but he plays a hotel owner. In one of the movie’s best jokes (a jab at Las Vegas real estate tycoon Steve Wynn), Gandolfini’s new hotel is called… Doug.
9. It Will Still Kind of Make You Want to Go to Vegas
There are a lot of jokes made at the expense of Las Vegas, that glittery, desert-set celebration of all things kitschy, over-sexed, and neon-lined, and most of them hit with a fair level of punchy accuracy. But at the same time, as much as “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” mocks Sin City, it also elevates it into something that you’re kind of desperate to want to visit. As soon as “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” lets out, you may book a flight to Las Vegas. Just make sure you see a magic show while you’re there.
10. Alan Arkin Probably Won’t Get an Oscar Nomination for His Role
Just saying. Although, if he could net one for being a lovable old grump in “Argo” (here, unsurprisingly, he plays a lovable old grump who used to be a magician), anything is possible.
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” hits theaters this weekend.